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Hamlet contains two revenge stories, the second triggered by the first halfway through. At the play’s end, an accidental swapping of swords between the two duellers Laertes and Hamlet is followed by a genuine exchange of forgiveness.
Their deadly fencing match reverses the outcome of another duel fought thirty years before, as Young Fortinbras from the rival kingdom of Norway succeeds to Denmark’s vacant throne.
Hamlet is a warning both against revenge and against revenge plays. For the cycle of vengeance begins with the title character staging a play about revenge (“a knavish piece of work … writ in choice Italian”, 3.2) that so enrages him with blind fury he kills the wrong man (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4). In so doing, Prince Hamlet succeeded only in creating another revenge-obsessed son, Laertes, like himself.
#Hamlet dies naming as king a prince who is more like his father King Hamlet than he ever was.
We, the audience, hear Claudius’ confession (“O heavy burden!”, 3.1). But what if, like Hamlet, we had not? What would we do? Lacking certain knowledge, no amount of “thinking too precisely on th’ event” (4.4) helps Hamlet, a man of reason, to reason his way to a solution. He “cudgels” his “brains” (5.1) in vain.
More generally, Hamlet’s dilemma is between acceptance and action: should we endure our world of “slings and arrows” as it is (“To be”). Or risk everything including our lives by taking on “a sea of troubles” and seek to change the world for the better? (“not to be”, 3.1).
For Christians, vengeance belongs only to God, but as Hamlet later asks Horatio, might a Christian not also “in perfect conscience!” take a life to prevent “further evil!” (5.2)?
#Hamlet: The prince swears an oath only to "remember" his father's Ghost, not to avenge him.
It is not Claudius’ guilt but Hamlet’s secret knowledge of his father’s death and the threat he poses to the king that is revealed by The Mousetrap with its murderous figure of the nephew Lucianus.
In the chapel and closet scenes, Hamlet’s aim becomes clear: to reunite in the afterlife his fractured family of mother and father. Hence his desire to rescue Gertrude’s soul (“Confess yourself to heaven”, 3.4) before he condemns his uncle’s (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”, 3.3).
Ironically, Hamlet’s wish to damn Claudius’ soul saves the life of the apparently praying king. And his blind stabbing of Polonius only creates a second vengeful son. Like Laertes in the final scene (“as a woodcock to mine own springe”, 5.2), Hamlet is caught in his own ‘Mousetrap’.
King Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed. Prince #Hamlet by the murder he hasn't.
The Ghost’s revelations sent Hamlet retreating inward into untrusting isolation. Polonius’ bereaved son instead reaches outward to lead a rebellious, castle-storming mob against the king.
However, the contrast between Laertes and Hamlet is not between action and delay but between reason and passion. The prince evaded Claudius’ offer to “think of us / As of a father” (1.2). In his unthinking rage, Laertes submits to the king’s invitation: “Will you be ruled by me?” (4.7).
Hamlet reflected that “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1). Laertes consigns conscience “to the profoundest pit” (4.5). Hamlet knows how a man may tremble in “the dread of something after death” (3.1). Laertes dares “damnation” (4.5).
Laertes, the avenger #Hamlet created, is also the man who pardons the prince.
No one delays longer than Fortinbras. Thirty years lapse before he makes his move against Denmark, and then when his father’s killer is himself dead.
Elsinore’s guards unhesitatingly swear an oath with Hamlet on the prince’s sword before departing in a soldier-like band of brothers: “come, let's go together” (1.5). Laertes’ inspiring passion is capable of moving an unarmed crowd to rebellion.
In contrast, Fortinbras’ only followers are hired mercenaries (“lawless resolutes”, 1.2) and, later, soldiers directed to do by his uncle. His Polish adventure one of his own captains dismisses as a purposeless quest for “a little patch of ground” (4.4).
Fortinbras’ good fortune was to be in the right place and time when Denmark’s royal family of Hamlet self-destructed.
In #Hamlet, no one delays longer than the land-grabbing opportunist, Young Fortinbras.
Despite the nobles’ cry of “Treason” (5.2), the prince strikes his villainous uncle: with the poisoned sword (for his own death) and poisoned wine goblet (for this mother’s). It is more public execution than private vengeance. The ending brings not just comeuppance but forgiveness too: Laertes, the avenger Hamlet’s desire for revenge created, is also the man who pardons the prince.
As for Old King Hamlet (“Alas, poor Ghost”, 1.5), by surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son perhaps the prince has granted his “dear father” (2.2) something more than revenge: forgiveness for his land-grabbing, “Extorted treasure in the womb of earth” (1.1) sins committed “in his days of nature” (1.5)—and with it escape from his suffering in the “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (1.5) of purgatory.
#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.
The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in. If at the cost of his life, Hamlet does in the end “win at the odds.”
His “ambition” for Denmark’s crown leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water; he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.
Hamlet and Laertes journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of Old King Fortinbras on Old King Hamlet.
“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.